Wednesday 16 February 2011

Review: Paul

Year: 2011
Director: Greg Mottola
Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kirsten Wiig, Seth Rogan, Jason Bateman

Synopsis is here

Early buzz for Paul from what I've seen is decidedly mixed. Peter Bradshaw, Christopher Tookie and Robbie Collins* didn't gain much from the viewing experience. There's also a feeling that some of the religious talk that crops up (allegedly toned down from what was originally placed) may feel like cheap pop shots and will little to sway likability from some of the more feverish u.s. supporters of Jesus Christ. I find this kind of a shame because underneth the dick and fart jokes is a warm film that is really in love with it's subject matter.

Much of this is to do with the writing from Pegg and Frost who are now; to many, two of our premium comedians, know how to write for each other and react with one another. Safe to say that if you weren't a fan of their previous endeavors, it's unlikely this will do any favors. And with this said, there's something that isn't quite right about all the proceedings. I watched Paul with friends on Valentines day and one response afterward was "the beginning is a little weak". I can't say that truly bothered me (big fan of silly references see) but I must admit there was a distinct lack of presence at first glance. As much as it's been said that Paul wishes to be a sci-fi Little Miss Sunshine of sorts (Pegg on Radio 5 with Kermode) it's quite revealing how much this duo miss their third musketeer. The lack of Edgar Wright (swanned off to pursue Pilgrim) is visible as it is his visual style and timing that often helps enhance and give punch to Peggs writing and Frost/Pegg's chemistry. This isn't to say I did not laugh. Not at all, I loved the Spielberg references, dug the fact there's a Mac and Me reference in one scene, cried at the Friedmans gag and I hope the introduction of Paul has Chris Carter smiling.

The thing is Wright patches up any drop off moments. Any scenes that may feel flabby or unkempt here, may not have under Edgar. This isn't a middle finger to Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) as it's very clear why he was placed on board to steer the ship. Mottola has what I was describe as a sweeter sensibility and much of the movie reflects this. Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are lovable parodies of their respective genres and they work for many as they spoof many typical elements that we often see in those films. Paul is truly more of a homage, not looking to subvert aspects but celebrate them in a way that only the filmmakers can. It is however, a pity that it often has to resort to swearing and scat jokes to it.

Some have said that Paul is a film that's finally gives Kristen Wiig time to shine. I disagree with not because I dislike Wiig (in fact slight crush) but because this additional time seems to be filled with Wiig "learning to swear well" which woud be fine in a small doses but fortunately becomes the main (one note) joke for a talented comedienne. Wiig clearly has fun in the role (as those everyone involved) but it's this resort to the basic that often throws the film off balance. Another sign of this imbalance would be having one character too many. There's no reason for the father character in this movie other than for the last scene which could have been done by almost anyone.   

However, most of the other characters work and they are fun to be around. Paul himself being a great mixture of well picked voice work (Rogan is brilliant) and well utilized effects (Paul really feels like a tangible character). Pegg (Graeme) and Frost (Clive) also have an interesting role reversal of type (Frost appears to be more of the straight man than Pegg for once) which isn't perfect, but mildly refreshing. Jason Bateman meanwhile (with an amusingly obscure film reference) is does what he does best. 

The above reviews state that Paul appears to be lacking in jokes. Maybe. There's not much in the way of real gags a such. With this said, the references, the one liners and chemistry didn't just make me smile but are leaps and bounds over recent releases Due Date, Cop out, Dinner for Schmucks, Vampires Suck and the like. Paul is very nerdy and will have moments only geeks will give a hoot about, but had more than enough laugh to sustain it's running time and more than enough heart to make it lovable.

Review: Animal Kingdom

Year: 2010 (U.K release 2011)
Director:  David Michôd
Screenplay:  David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Jackie Weaver, Ben Mendelshon, Guy Pearce

Synopsis is here:

We start Animal Kingdom with the lead character J idly watching television with what looks to be his sleeping mother. It is only when the paramedics rush in and tend to his mother (overdosing on heroin) that the distress seeps in. J continues to watch the television as if what's happening is almost a common occurrence. His blank gaze appears to give off the feeling, not that he doesn't care, but that he's completely desensitized. It's a look that doesn't seem to change throughout the movie. However, by the time the last moments play out and I saw that look once more I released how effective David Michôd piece is.  J is a sponge, soaking up all he sees. The re-appearance of his psychotic Uncle Pope to the constant questioning by the police, J sucks it all in. The tension lies in his tetchy family, because now it's all soaked in, they are now fretting for when it gets squeezed out.

Animal Kingdom is a low-key, high tension film from Australia which comes along on the back end of quite a few crime features. Not just crime however, but working class crime. Features such as French heist film Black take us to the back alleys of Senegal. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans revels in depravity within a post-Katrina sub-culture while The Town is another welcoming addition in Ben Affleck's gritty Boston overture. Animal Kingdom follows the line in a similar fashion to Affleck's film, dumping us in a claustrophobic small town where the sun may shine all day but these character will still have trouble finding the light.

Animal Kingdom plays out almost like a Greek tragedy, examining a fallen family of crime who are now all looking to seek where they fit in a world where their way of life is under threat. Their eco system has changed and the biggest alteration is of course is the presence of J, who is a square peg in this family circle. The attachment of the family is well observed with hints of incest littered every so often. When J is introduced to them, they appear welcoming, but their looks are constantly deceiving. This proves the basis for the story that plays out for us. Violence comes about in short sharp bursts, but AK is more interested in character behaviour than anything. Playing us down the route of survival, the film shows us a group of people at their most primal. They will claw and scratch to keep afloat and moral is just a word in the dictionary.

This is a film of great turns with three performances which come on strong at at different angles. Pope; played by Ben Mendelshon, is a chilling and repugnant creation that brings a chill whenever he appears on screen. Jackie Weaver is equally as vile but from a quieter and more troubling angle. The most kudos goes to the 17 year old James Frecheville who in his second feature has the most complicated character to pull off. J appears to be as wooden as a plank but a quick observation shows how well connected Frecheville is to the characters age and educational status. But most importantly the display also shows; just like Malik in Un Prophete, how this character consumes the activity around him. Combine Frechveville's dead eyed stare with director Michôd's seeping effect of this family's corrupt ways and we obtain a a perfectly executed Kuleshov effect put in place. We truly believe that the same state we saw at the beginning of the story means something completely different by the end. This is a difficult, unsympathetic person to get behind but by the time Air Supply's "I'm all out of love" I found myself deeply engrossed in the outcome of this character. Credit not only to the actor but the storytelling.

What excites me about Michôd's début full length feature, is the just how confident it all is. The visual touches are never overused (some great moments of slow motion are utilised), the films powerful score made winning me over all the more easier and we are given a narrative which isn't fuelled by many twists and turns but is executed so well that I honest hadn't a clue where the film was going. This is tightly wounded, gripping genre cinema drenched in atmosphere and pounding with tension. I cannot wait to see this movie again.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Review: True Grit

Year: 2010 (U.K release 2011)
Director: The Coens
Screenplay: The Coens
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Synopsis is here

You never know what your going to get with the Coens, two of the most idiosyncratic directors of Americana. After my friends left True Grit (Based on the original novel and not the John Wayne movie), their response was strangely muted. With all the praise and props that the film's been getting they expected why more than they received. I can understand why. This appears to be the Coen brothers at their most conventional. One of my friends labelled it as "safe" which I don't agree with, but understand where he's coming from. What I admire about True Grit; is it's lack of irony or self -awareness. Something that The Coens do well. However; considering this film comes off the back end of A Serious Man, maybe the lack of irony is in itself an ironic gesture. Asking the brothers however will of course get you nowhere.

I admired True Grit and it's charms. It's a very simple and direct western with does what it says on the tin. Yes I'm a tad surprised at the amount of award plaudits it's received but such things shouldn't distract from what it is an entertaining movie coming from two directors just coming of a peak of creativity. Some may have been expecting another No country for old men, others may have been expecting something very overtly stylised (The Hudsucker Proxy perhaps). The Coens have merely created a formidable product. There's no creaky moments or real weaknesses (you could say it's a little slow at first) but there's not too much that stands out as "Coen", save the verbose dialogue (they have a knack for this detail) and one or two oddball characters that crop up within the story.

For the most part The Coen's stick to the point keep it's message clear and it's eye not only on the prize but it's characters. I'm quite surprised that despite the films rich pallette Roger Deakins' cinematography appears more focused on the grizzled and/or ugly faces that inhabit the vistas than the surroundings themselves. With this said  however this may have been because I was more carried away with the performances and how the prose was delivered than anything else. I have yet to see the original movie (brought but time has really got away from me) but much has been said about the performances by the 21 year Kim Darby and John Wayne who won his only Oscar for Rooster Cogburn. I'm very interested to watch and compare these performances to their modern counter-parts as I found very turn to be an effective one.

Bridges gives us a humorous, rambling, curmudgeon whose head is turned by the straight-forward and blunt talking Mattie Ross. Damon has finally cemented his place my hall of favourite working actors with yet another efficient performance but it's the compelling display by Hailee Steinfeld that is the revelation to me. It's a study and adult performance from such a young face and it deserves praise. It's easy to enjoy Bridges aimless talk and Damon's bravado but Steinfeld not only provides the counterbalance to the male posturing but as the viewpoint for the whole movie, she is brilliant. I was with her headstrong ways from the start and willing to follow her throughout the story. The relationship that grows between the three characters is a strong and natural one and while their motivations often slip or drift my appreciation for their admiration grew stronger.

True Grit is an entertaining piece which is more low-key than I expected. Never the less that doesn't deter the well of emotion I felt in the films last moments. The Coen's have provided a "normal" piece by their standards but one with some sly dry wit, a wonderful look, nice turns and a storyline that doesn't betray it's emotional duties later on.

Monday 14 February 2011

Review: Biutiful

Year: 2010 (U.K Release 2011)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Javier Bardem

Synopsis is here:

Films like Biutiful remind me why many dislike foreign language films. It is not necessarily down to the subtitles, although the amount of remakes say otherwise. It's stumbling upon a film that decided that it wants to "move" you with it's profound sadness and despair. I'm fine with films that wish to be downbeat and I'm completely ok with all out depressing; but Biutiful is so somber, so tragic and so absurd it almost comes off a little silly.

Biutiful with it's misspelled ironic title lays everything on too thickly. We are told from the start that our protagonist Uxbal (Bardam) has a few months to live and the film decides to go down from here. There doesn't seem to be any wish for us to really feel for this characters plight, only know that shit happens, when it rains it pours and Job had it bloody easy. Everything is drenched in a melodramatic gloom from the seems to be no escape, redemption or joy. Once again I don't need joy in a film to gain something from it but halfway through I was almost begging Uxbal just to top himself and relive everyone of the misery. We're given mistrusting brothers, bipolar, estranged spouses who work as prostitutes, depressed, troubled children and I haven't even got to the exploited to say their story isn't a bundle of fun.

To add this we are given an over proud, criminal Christ figure who believes that his own pain must be hidden because everyone hurts. PLUS HE CAN SEE THE DEAD BECAUSE HE HIMSELF IS DYING. In real life we cannot give to every charity as we must (and do) have a sense of the internal. This is not as selfish as it is true. There's only so much that we can do as people. Iñárritu wishes to not only to drown Uxbal in his many sorrows, plying slabs of depression like slabs of butter on toast but also pivots all this mechanical manipulation on the fact that Uxbal just thinks to highly of everything to seek true solace or help. It's a frustrating principal made even more annoying by the simple factor that Iñárritu labours over this for almost three hours. It's just too much and in the end, the whole film feels like all 26 years of Eastenders Christmas specials slapping you in the face with some of the sixth sense/hereafter/the haunting in Connecticut thrown in. 

With all the self-important misery going on, it's very crucial to be invested in Javier Bardem and it's not hard to see why the man has gained the plaudits. Bardem is a wonderfully human actor and his presence makes all the wallowing semi-bearable. But here it's just not enough because there's just so much suffering and way too much naval gazing. I felt like a was slammed through the wringer before the dreaded cancer strengthen his grip. The worst thing about the whole thing the pointless feeling I gained with the films last moments. Everything feels as it was almost all in vain and you've just viewed this man's last months just to watch him die. Biutiful is a film that has none of the absurd wit placed with A Serious Man, nor does it have the gentle poignancy and retrospect which was infused within A Single Man. Reminding myself of Iñárritu's back catalog I found myself more disappointed. 21 Grams, Amores Perros are not only superbly crafted films (this is also well put together technically) but also more focused and parred down pieces which I both found genuine heart to. Biutiful is not interested in heart unless it features some sort of stabbing.

In a cinematic world where a horror film would be looked down upon having masochistic wish to display psychical pain. Get rid of the blood and the make same amount of grief emotional and you've got yourself an award piece it seems. Quite simply Biutiful, isn't. 

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Review: Brighton Rock

Year: 2010 (U.K Release 2011)
Director: Rowan Joffe
Screenplay: Rowan Joffe
Starring: Sam Riley, Helen Mirren, John Hurt

The Synopsis is here:

I haven't read the book (drat) nor seen the original 1947 film (double drat) but considering the critical hubbab that is surrounding Brighton Rock (the tweets I read from some Brit critics weren't great), I found myself enjoying most of it. It's a gangster movie that remains dark to it's core and for the most part has no qualms with muddying it's feet in the murky waters it wades in. It's clearly obvious that book lovers would start shoveling pages of the novel down my throat at the mere hint that I enjoyed this remake/adaptation. However like I always state if it can get my interested in the source then it can't be all bad.

For the most part it's not. The atmosphere is plastered on thick and quickly in this adaptation with opening shots of dark crashing waves and a blaring horns (seriously. Inception, Shutter Island and this? what's with the horns?). The tone is set up quickly as it's opening scenes do as much as they can to unsettle. It's clearly important to Joffe that it's shadows and drained colours do much to seduce us as we need them to help us believe that Sam Riley's babyface hides the mind of a cold blooded sociopath.This is difficult because in order to show his dark nature, Riley resorts to nodding his head down slightly and looking up evilly. At first this is slightly distracting and the bastard inside me just wanted to scream "DUN DUN DUN!" at the screen for my own amusement (and the frustration of everyone else) but I repressed my urges and found that when Riley's Pinkie works best when he shows fear. When Pinkie is truly threatened and becomes the sniveling toerag he truly is the film picks up a lot more. It doesn't happen often, which is a shame, but with this said Riley is watchable enough in many of the scenes. It helps that the bright eyed, Andrea Riseborough is the right balance of vulnerability and nativity. Riley's tough guy act bounces off well against her fragile performance. I also had alot of time for John Hurt and Helen Mirren, but this mostly because it's John Hurt and Helen Mirren.

Coming off writing the moody screenplay for The American, Joffe brings about some interesting moments, including a rabble rousing sequence involving riled up mods and rockers and vespers that had me raise an eyebrow. In fact it's tricky for me to see why so many people had an issue with the era update (moved from post WWII to the last year of capital punishment in the sixties) without seeing the original feature/reading the book. Pinkie is a model of rebellious youth who doesn't want to hang for his actions but will do all that he can to avoid punishment. The combination of this with the rising moral panics involving teens at the time, help illustrate the conflicting issue that we have here at our point now in society. A situation where we feel teens are so fearless that even the harshest punishment won't stop them. Brighton Rock felt a lot more effective with this aspect than the Daily Mail baiting claptrap that was Harry Brown, a film which reveled in stereotypical nonsense. However, I must agree that the religious are less effective. It's hard to believe Pinkie is as catholic as he is against this background.

Also despite the films well depicted setting of Brighton as a dingy, and foreboding place, for some reason the film overall has a very televisual feel. Moments feel a tad too flat and don't bring about the cinematic scope a film like this could have. Brighton Rock is effectively gritty however, the characters and their motives are sometimes darker than pitch, and their complexities still flow through the material enough to make the film (particularly the latter moments) an engaging enough watch. An adult film with an interesting viewpoint, Brighton Rock probably won't overshadow the original film, nor the book. However, until the time comes for me to watch/read those earlier works this will do fine.